Suede - The Crucible
The Word, issue 102
Submitted by: Hagar Itzikson
Dark sexuality in repressed and violent suburbs. Love, loss, vertiginous highs, spiralling falls and, finally, self-salvation - all in the white heat of a 20-year trajectory. Suede: A Passion Play - by ANDREW HARRISON
AS IS THE CASE WITH FOSSIL FUELS, decent sitcoms and English-born top-flight football managers, it is easy to believe that the supply of grand rock sagas is no longer being replenished. The great tragic arcs, the severed alliances, the wrongs never righted and the roads never taken... these all seem to be part of a vanished world. They don't make them like they used to.
Except they do. Here's one. At British rock's lowest ebb in two decades, a band forms from poorly heeled misfits in a stultifying suburb of London. Revolted by the lumpen attitudes that surround them, they resolve to be everything their contemporaries are not: glamorous, decadent, suave and elegant. Transplanted to London, they recruit a guitarist of supernatural talents and drummer of equal abilities, who happens to be gay. The singer acquires a girlfriend - she will later leave him for a rival whose success will be a constant thorn in the band's side.
The band's early material sets in train events that will transform British music. But the guitarist is increasingly ill-at-ease with the singer's themes and lifestyle, and becomes dictatorial in the studio. He leaves in acrimony, and to general disbelief the band replace him with a 17-year-old schoolboy. Everyone expects them to fail. They do not. They become more successful than ever.
But dwindling inspiration and the singer's drug regimen lead them to make bad decisions. The records falter. The band ends in a whimper not a bang, and the young guitarist wonders if he made the biggest mistake of his life in joining it. The band members barely speak for seven years until they are invited to reform, for one night only, at the Royal Albert Hall. The whimper becomes a bang again, louder than ever. It's still echoing.
It's easy for Suede to talk about their vertiginous rise and dispiriting fall now, after the success of their comeback shows. "We had no idea if the Albert Hall was going to be a success or a disaster," admits bassist Mat Osman, "but when we had to stop in the middle because of a standing ovation for Metal Mickey, right then we knew we couldn't leave it at this. We had to do more."
Suede came to terms with their past just as the music world has rediscovered its interest in them, and the band are not letting the moment pass them by. The newly released double-CD-plus-DVD editions of their five albums make Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series look parsimonious by comparison. There is also the tantalising prospect of an entirely new Suede record in the not-too-distant future. Suede toe a party line on this matter. They will write some songs. If they're good enough, they'll record them. If the recordings are good enough, they'll release them. If, if, if.
I talk to the four current members of Suede - Mat Osman, drummer Simon Gilbert, guitarist Richard Oakes and keyboard player Neil Codling - by phone, and sit in a sunny churchyard near the Word offices with Brett Anderson. ("This is very Suede, isn't it?" he jokes as the sun beats down. His humour is dry, but it's there). Some of them talk about restoring the band's pride, others about conquering their own demons. If they have one thing in common it's relief – that when Suede came back people cared, and that Suede were able to justify that long-buried affection. This band are not for everybody. If you hated Suede in the '90s then you'll still hate them now. But it's 1993 all over again. You might hate them but you won't be able to ignore them.
MAT OSMAN HAD KNOWN BRETT Anderson since they were both about 16. Even as a teenager Brett was a character about town in Haywards Heath. He wore suits with a tie-pin, and hats. "In the '80s this was the equivalent of sticking a target on your back," says Osman, who was a "dreadful, dreadful goth" and a member of several "largely theoretical" groups. When he saw Anderson busking in their sixth-form college he asked him, almost on impulse, whether he wanted to join a band.
Mat was a denizen of the post-punk world. When he visited Brett's house he was surprised to see a mural painted by Brett's sister featuring scenes from Pink Floyd's The Wall, and a poster of The Beatles' Let It Be portraits. "To me it was musical history and the enemy, all in one go." When Anderson went to University College London the two stayed in touch. They formed a three-piece with Anderson's new girlfriend, an architecture student named Justine Frischmann. They called the band Suede.
At first they "flailed about" writing folk-pop of limited ambitions and covering Smiths songs, and cultivating a charity-shop look: tall and thin, old suits and blouses. But Anderson remembers seeing some "terrible hair-rock" on Top Of The Pops and knowing, somehow, that his band could do better than that. The next day they placed an ad in the NME mentioning The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, Lloyd Cole and David Bowie. Among those who replied was a north Londoner called Bernard Butler.
"We've always been really charmed with finding people," says Osman. "Bernard was literally the second person we saw." The quiet, defensive 19-year-old guitarist from Stamford Hill played some Smiths songs and some originals, then played along to a few records: Pet Shop Boys, Kate Bush. "I remember thinking, 'Just don't let your jaw drop to the ground, don't let him realise how far ahead he is,'" Osman recalls. "He was stunning. He was both a gifted mimic, who could play a Johnny Marr song perfectly, and an amazing original too. I'd never met anyone like that before - someone who spoke through their instrument. I was utterly, utterly excited because it was clearly a quantum leap in what we were doing."
Suede replaced their drum machine with ULU ticket office assistant Simon Gilbert, whose rolling, glam-thug beats began to draw the band in interesting new directions. Unbeknownst to them they now had a gay drummer, possibly the Suedest thing imaginable. Simon can clearly remember coming out to his new bandmates months later. They'd all gone back to the squat in Whitechapel that Simon shared with a female friend. Is this your girlfriend? someone asked. No, said Simon. What, are you gay, then? the friend joked. Well, yes, said Simon.
"It was the first time I'd told anyone at all apart from a few close friends," Gilbert says. "Everyone looked a bit shocked and went silent. After they'd gone home I thought, 'Fuck, I've blown it here."' The next day Anderson phoned him. You did say you were gay last night, didn't you? Well, yes I did. And you do know that's OK with us? Er, yes. "It was brilliant," says Gilbert, "A real moment in my life when I thought, you know, we really are band."
Within a few months Suede had written a song that, according to Anderson, "opened completely new doors for us": The Drowners. The compositions began to flow out: Metal Mickey, Sleeping Pills, My Insatiable One. "It was like a corny film, like The Doorswhere they sit down and immediately they're writing Light My Fire," says Anderson. "You think, it can't have been like that. But there it was." When Justine Frischmann didn't like the best of the new songs - specifically Pantomime Horse, which took the band's sexual confusion and nightmare pop beauty on to another plane - Anderson suggested she leave the band. She was soon on the path that led to Blur's Damon Albarn, and Elastica. Suede were going somewhere else.
"I wanted to create a world as well as a band," Anderson continues. "A group that people loved because they were fascinated by the imagery, the lexicon and the ideas as well as the music. The Smiths created a tribe, and I wanted to do that too." He admits he probably overdid the lexicon of pigs and dogs and sky-scrapers to the point of parody. "I don't really know where they come from. Some stylised, dark, sexual place - the violent, repressed suburbs maybe. It did become a bit of a cliche. But at least it was our cliche."
Though the band continued to play the indie seedbeds of Camden, record companies were magnificently uninterested. A&R men saw a "pretty incompetent" fledgling Suede, made their decisions and then ignored them as they carried on playing and developing. And a strange phenomenon began to occur. The Suede People came out of the woodwork. The audiences were not the typical rock crowd. There were boys in bobs and earrings, girls in suits, non-white indie fans: a convocation of outsiders. Very early on, at the Southampton Joiner's Arms, Suede's crowd was, for the first time, hysterical.
"That huge, depressing semi-circle of empty space that always surrounds new bands had disappeared," says Anderson. "It was like someone had put something in their drinks. People were ripping at my shirt for the first time. Suddenly there was a sense that we had a hardcore following that had come out of nowhere. It was as if they had all simultaneously agreed on the same thing - this is the band we are looking for. Something a bit twisted."
IN SUEDE'S EARLY DAYS IT WAS QUITE easy for the band not to know what Anderson was singing about. When their debut album Suede came out, Mat and Bernard finally read the lyrics in the CD booklet: the intertwined themes of sex, death and chemical oblivion. Jaws were seen to drop.
"I think it was a bit of a revelation for them," says Anderson. "'What band am I in?' Mat and Simon liked it, but Bernard... The values that we were celebrating, the transience of youth, that dark, sexual stuff... he personally didn't respect them. They weren't very wholesome or worthwhile. And when I took it even further out for Dog Man Star he liked it even less."
Butler had always hated promoting his music. Now, says Gilbert, he began to micro-manage Suede's music. "I'd been playing drums for 13 years and I didn't enjoy being told exactly what to play. It didn't go on for too long. We had a massive blowout when we were recording New Generation and I made it clear I wasn't going to work like that."
Anderson and Butler used to deal with their problems by sulking over them. "We weren't mature enough to deal with our disagreements," says Brett. "I blame myself for that. I was turning myself into a very strange person who was taking huge amounts of drugs, and experiencing fame on an incredible level. That creates isolation. I was unable to communicate with him, or anyone. I was scared of everything."
He suspected early on that Butler would leave Suede one day. He just didn't expect the guitarist to disappear in a rage before they had even completed their second album Dog Man Star, after demanding that producer Ed Buller be sacked. The irony was that, as well as string arrangements to complete, Butler left them with guitar work to finish off. A session man was found quickly. "The instability that made Suede work was always going to break it apart," Anderson says. "Initially it was a relief when he left. I hugely regret it now, that I didn't do everything in my power to make him stay. It's probably the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. But the situation was so uncomfortable, so awful, that you were just glad it was over."
With a make-or-break album to promote and a world tour booked, Suede took the logical step. They replaced Butler with a 17-year-old who had never been in a band before.
SUEDE WERE THE FIRST PROPER GIG THAT Richard Oakes ever saw, at Poole Arts Centre in May 1993. He stood as close to the stage as he could, watching what they did very closely. "I was a budding musician, I wanted to see how it was done," he says. Less than a year later he read in NME that Suede's auditions for Butler's replacement were not restricted to professionals. "It sounded like they were flailing a bit," he says, "I thought I might as well have a go." He sent a tape to the Suede fanclub and made sure not to tell them his age, or that he was still at school.
When they called, Oakes's mother let the cat out of the bag, so Suede knew what to expect: "not your typical cider-drinking teenager but a grammar school boy who'd never been out of his bedroom". At the audition Richard played the Dog Man Star song Heroine"better than Bernard had", according to Simon Gilbert. Then they wanted to know if he could write. "I told them I could. I wanted people to see that I could create something for Suede myself." Oakes was in.
The subsequent Dog Man Star tour was an unprecedented undertaking for a 17- year-old kid: step into the shoes of the most lauded guitarist of his generation, carry the weight of new songs in front of possibly judgemental fans, and play all of Butler's complex, multi-layered compositions on just the one guitar. Oakes proved up to it. "I had to distil everything that was going on in each song into a single guitar part, and just keep it exciting somehow."
The success of the Oakes-enabled Dog Man Star tour brought Suede to their third album in a bloody-minded mood. "There was a strong impulse in the band to say 'Fuck you' to the world," says Gilbert. "Everyone thought we were going to split up. Everyone thought we were fucked except us - but we had incredible confidence in what we could do. We wanted to show everyone."
Oakes was impatient to write, Suede had recruited a new and photogenic keyboard player - Simon's cousin Neil Codling - and their producer Ed Buller, resentful at being made the lightning rod for Butler's dissatisfactions, was on a mission too. "Ed's desire for revenge was even greater than ours," Mat Osman recalls. "He was relentless. We absolutely felt vindicated when the record was a hit."
The full-on pop album Coming Up was Suede's rebirth into day-glo colour after the monochrome introspection of Dog Man Star. Oakes had written a series of pure-pop guitar singles - Trash, Beautiful Ones, Filmstar plus the ballad Saturday Night - that redefined Suede and set them against Britpop in its decadent phase. "I wasn't trying to write number ones," he says, "but I did want extremely catchy, singalong choruses. We wanted to write big, primal songs, not stuff that challenged people."
Coming Up was a hit machine. Trash was a joyous anthem for the sort of people who loved Suede, the gorgeous, skinny outsiders with their DIY jewellery. And Beautiful Ones was a joyous anthem for the sort of people who'd never heard of Suede: the weekend wasters, the everyday hedonists of rave culture who had "lost it to Bostik". "It was a celebratory, observational record," says Anderson, "not about me but about the people around me."
With hindsight, Oakes's problems began not when he replaced Butler but when Suede tried to follow Coming Up. Anderson's methodical drug use - "E and charlie, mostly harmless party stuff" - had escalated into heroin and crack addiction, and he wanted to make something "very cold, very brutal". He gave inspirational tapes of Prince, the Beastie Boys, Jurassic 5 and Roots Manuva to a baffled Oakes. Meanwhile, Codling had mastered the sampler and was making "astonishing space music, really out-there stuff". But many of Oakes's songs were returned as unusable.
"It was soul-destroying at the time," says Oakes. "I started to think, 'What am I here for?'" During interminable rehearsals for electronic songs like Savoir Faire he'd find he had literally nothing to do. "It was like turning up for work and realising you don't know how your computer works. And you can't ask anyone because you should know." He began to dread seeing the band at all.
"Making Head Music was just a horrible experience," says Osman. "I don't think I enjoyed a moment of it. Nobody was there. There were whole days of me and Steve Osbourne, the producer, making loops, feeding things through synthesizers, just going nowhere. Everyone was on different timetables - Simon and Richard coming in in the morning, Brett arriving in the evening off his face. It wasn't like being in a band at all."
Anderson kicked his addictions before they completed Head Music and the record made it to number one in 1999, but it remains a dissatisfying listen. Suede were for the first time on the back foot. Anderson defends it now - "There's a shadow on the last two records, but at least we were trying to take it somewhere"-but the fact was that they had tried something new and failed. Oakes was disenchanted and Codling would soon leave the band, suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Anderson now wishes Suede had split up after Head Music but they ploughed on out of pride.
THE FINAL SUEDE ALBUM, A NEW MORNING, because a ruinous, end-less finale for the band, recorded twice over and taking two years to come out. Suede wore themselves out trying to do all the things they were not supposed to do: first a "retro-folky" sound informed by Nick Drake, then a rock-electronic mix with Beck's producer Tony Hoffer, which they scrapped. Finally they recorded it anew with Stephen Street. The result was a competent and ordinary album of pastoral guitar pop. "It's a laudable sentiment, to try to make music that you're not supposed to make," says Mat Osman. "What's not laudable is when the music is not very good."
They learned the feeble midweek chart position for A New Morning on Richard's birthday, when Suede were on a charter flight "from Olso to Belfast or something". It entered the chart at number 24 and a black mood descended. Richard dealt with it by getting "horrendously drunk, as I did in those days". There was a desultory tour and a perfunctory Greatest Hits. After they'd played The Graham Norton Show in 2003 Anderson told the band that he wanted to take a break. They agreed almost too readily. They knew what he meant. They were tired of Suede.
"It ended on such a squib, not even a glorious disaster like a Never Let Me Down," says Osman. "We just made a record that wasn't very good and then we stopped. It was always at the back of all of our minds that we needed to end on a flourish."
They went their separate ways. Anderson started a solo career. Gilbert moved to his beloved Thailand and started a band called first Futon and now Goo. Osman began to edit an arts newsletter called Le Cool.
Richard Oakes withdrew from music. "In the final year I felt like I was in the wrong band," he says. "I started wondering what I'd actually done for Suede. It was always about the first incarnation, ultimately I'd failed... things like that. I'd gone straight from school to Suede, and I had to learn how to have a normal life. Pay the gas bill, that sort of thing." In time he built a studio and began writing again. "I knew that the only way to get my life back on track was to start writing music, to exorcise these mixed-up feelings." His band Artmagic - intricate, dreamy guitar pop from a calmer place than Suede - has its first EP out and an album to come.
When Brett Anderson phoned the former members of Suede in 2009 to see if they would play the 2010 Teenage Cancer Trust show, Richard was the most sceptical. "I was prepared for the worst," he admits. He'd fallen out of contact with the band and this was the first time he'd spoken to Anderson since Suede's final gig at the London Astoria. Anderson assured him they would work relentlessly on the comeback. They would project as never before. They would force people to understand why Suede were a great band. They would have the final flourish they all wanted.
"And he was right," says Oakes. "It was the right way for me to deal with my demons too. Suede was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and the worst thing. But it was as much my band as anyone else's and I needed to remind myself of that."
The Albert Hall led to a date at the 02 (Suede's largest ever indoor show) and then runs performing their first three albums in Brixton and Dublin. All were greeted with similar hysteria to Suede's first shows in the toilets of Camden. The flourish continued into the summer festivals. There's no particular sign of it ending. At a time when their '90s contemporaries seem part of an unrecoverable past, Suede are suddenly back in focus. Anything can happen now.
Richard Oakes used to wonder whether the shadow of Bernard Butler would always be there for him - if he would always be the replacement. But then Suede came back from the dead and astonished everyone. He doesn't worry about it any more.